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N.J. Mandates Preschool Special-Ed. Program

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Under a new state law that went into effect this month, New Jersey school districts are being required to identify--and to provide special-education services for--preschool children suspected of having developmental problems.

The law, which was enacted earlier this year by the General Assembly, mandates preschool and early-intervention services for handicapped children from birth up to age 5. The law also requires local school boards to provide the parents of children under age 3 with information on special-education programs and services available in the community.

Under the new law, districts can provide the services themselves or contract with other districts, educational-services commissions, or approved private schools for the services.

New Jersey is one of 23 states that have enacted laws mandating services for handicapped children under the age of 5. But the New Jersey law is unusual, according to state officials, because it also mandates that the state departments of education, health, and human services collaborate in the development and funding of special programs for children under 3 years old.

Studies have shown that early intervention can minimize or eliminate some problems associated with children's handicaps and that the improvement has a lasting effect. The studies have found that handicapped children who attended special preschool programs scored consistently higher on achievement tests, required fewer placements in special-education programs, and repeated a grade less often than children who had not attended preschool.

This year, the state legislature has appropriated about $23 million for the preschool program, an increase of about $11 million, according to Patricia Munday Hill, a planning associate for the state department of education's special-education division. Joint state-agency funding for the early-intervention program for infants, she said, is about $2.9 million.

As a result of the new mandate, Ms. Hill said, the department expects the number of handicapped preschool children to double from 4,000 last year to about 8,000 this year.

Under the department's guidelines, children evaluated for the preschool program will not be categorized by their handicaps, Ms. Hill said. The children's parents, she said, will be told that their child has developmental difficulties in language, motor, or behavioral skills and that the problem is either mild or moderate.

For children age 3 and under, according to Ms. Hill, the state is sim-ply designating the children "eligible for early-intervention program."

Ms. Hill said the department chose to avoid labeling the children because of the stigma that is often attached to such labels, and because it is difficult to identify a particular disability accurately among children who are very young.

"The real significance of the mandate is that, previously, districts could elect not to run a program," and now state law requires them to do so, she said. There are more than 600 school districts in the state.

To comply with the law, school districts must "conduct campaigns" to inform community residents of the services available, the eligibility requirements, and who to contact for more information, according to a department spokesman. Moreover, they must make available a multidisciplinary team of professional staff members to conduct evaluations.

In announcing the new mandate, Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman said: "Over the next few years, it is expected that the number of handicapped children receiving special education and related services will rise from the current level of 5,000 to approximately 16,000 as a result of this law."

"By working with these youngsters early, we can increase opportunities for them and better prepare them to lead healthy, productive lives regardless of their handicaps."

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